Next week marks David Letterman’s final dash across the “Late Show” stage. His final weeks have seen the return of personages with Most Favored Guest status: Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, among them, with Norm MacDonald, and Oprah still to come this week (where’s Bonnie Hunt?) Some fun? Hardly. Late night’s loss of Letterman after 33 years is nobody’s gain.
Back in the late 1970s-early 80s (who can remember?), I was fortunate enough to be in the Ice House comedy club in Pasadena on a night when Letterman dropped in to prep for an upcoming “Tonight Show” appearance with his idol, Johnny Carson. That night, the other comics had been thrown by the appearance in the audience of a couple who had inexplicably brought their two pre-teen children. One did his act, explicit language and all, without acknowledgement. Another would swear, regard the kids, and make an apologetic grimace. A third was moved to stammer, “I’m sorry” after the more profane punchlines.
And then out came Letterman who took his measure of the crowd and then opened with, “Two fifth graders were walking down the street….”
Pulitzer Prize-winning television critic Tom Shales has compared Letterman’s impending departure to those of Walter Cronkite and Johnny. That sounds about right. His brand of talk show has been co-opted by the fun guys—the Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel. It’s all about creating viral moments now. During his “Late Night” and “Late Show” tenures, it was all about form, and that in turn created the subversive water cooler content (the water cooler was the 20th century equivalent of going viral).
Like Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen before him, Letterman and his dream-team of writers and producers, upended talk show conventions and played with the medium. He did that one show in which the image rotated 360 degrees. For one re-run broadcast, the voices of Letterman and guests were redubbed, another rerun was dubbed in Spanish. And let’s not forget the Monkey-cam.
For someone who held up Johnny Carson as a role model, it’s odd that what made Dave “Dave” was his violation of one Carson’s cardinal rules: Always make the guest feel at home. Doing panel with Letterman could be the height of “discomfort television” for the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, or Justin Bieber. “I see how you deal with your guests,” Cher told him in 1986, just before famously calling him an ‘a**hole.’ “And sometimes it's really great and you seem to like them. And then sometimes, if you don't like 'em, you might as well take a picnic lunch."
Whether or not he liked Madonna during her bratty 1994 appearance, every tense second of their encounter is comic and talk show gold.
When Letterman pondered with Julia Roberts during her last appearance this week why he was this way, she said succinctly, "Stupid people annoy you."
Unlike Johnny, he opened up to us, as in his masterful monologue during his first show back after the 9-11 terrorist attack, the night he made amends with the late comedian Bill Hicks by playing a controversial stand-up segment Letterman had previously axed, or his awkward confession that he was being blackmailed (for having had sex with staffers); and his subsequent on-air apology to his wife.
And we feel like we know him, we certainly love him, but we will now have to live without him (at least on late night). Let’s hope he doesn’t follow the example of Johnny, who on his last broadcast, said, “When I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been.” There was no more to come.
What are your favorite Letterman moments? Share them below in the comments section.